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       Boredom, p.11

           Alberto Moravia
 

  At this point I would realize that her sexual appetite—which, even if it did not seem to concern me directly, yet made use of me for its gratification—was succeeded by indifference. When I say indifference I do not by that mean an attitude of coldness or detachment. No, Cecilia’s indifference toward me immediately after we had made love was simply a complete lack of contact very similar to the thing which caused me to suffer so much and which I called boredom; only that Cecilia, unlike me, not only did not suffer at all but did not even appear to be conscious of it. It was as though she had been born with the detachment from external things which to me seemed an intolerable change from a very different original state; as though what to me seemed a sort of sickness was, in her, a sane and normal fact.

  And yet, as I said, it became necessary to speak. The recent intimacy of physical love inspired in me a desire for another and truer intimacy of the affections which could be achieved only through the spoken word. So I tried to start a conversation with her; or rather, since Cecilia never carried on a conversation but confined herself to answering questions, I interrogated her about herself and her life. In this way I came to know that she was an only child, that she lived with her parents in a flat in the Prati district, that her father was a tradesman, that she had been educated by the nuns, that she had a few girl friends, that she was not engaged to be married—and a few other things of the kind. Told in this way, these may seem summary pieces of information such as might be provided about any girl of Cecilia’s age and position; but they were in truth the only facts I succeeded in obtaining, and then only with great difficulty. Cecilia certainly did not appear to wish to conceal anything from me; if anything, she seemed to be ignorant of a great deal of what I asked her, or at any rate to be incapable of describing things or defining them in detail. It might have been thought that she had never stopped to look around, to observe herself and her own world, so that in asking her these questions I was putting her more or less in the situation of someone who is being interrogated about persons and things to which he has never paid any attention. There is a game that consists in showing to someone, for the space of one minute, some illustration or other, and then asking him to name all the objects which are represented in it. In this game, which puts a person’s power of observation to the test, Cecilia would certainly have obtained the lowest possible marks, for she appeared never to have seen or observed anything, although she had lived not for one single minute, but for years, in front of the illustration of her own life. Her information, furthermore, was not merely generalized but also inexact; as though these few things—the only daughter, the parents, the tradesman father, the education by the nuns, the girl friends—were by no means clearly established in her mind, as indeed nothing can be which has never aroused our curiosity even though close to us and easily observable. And even when she gave an exact reply, she left me equally in doubt because of the cold, generic, colorless way in which she expressed herself, apparently the result of an unconquerable inattentiveness.

  Since Cecilia’s family and background did not interest me very much, I fell back of necessity upon Balestrieri, whom I felt to be connected in some obscure way with me and with my relations with Cecilia. In point of fact, even when she was speaking of Balestrieri, Cecilia’s laconic manner was never modified, but this did not discourage me; on the contrary, her reserve on the subject of the old painter inspired me with a passionate desire to know more about him, always to know more. Actually, when questioning her about her past and about Balestrieri, I felt, as I very soon realized, that I was questioning her about her future and about myself.

  Two months had passed since the day when Cecilia came into my studio for the first time, and I was now beginning to wonder how it was that Balestrieri had been able to entertain so violent a passion for her; how it was, in fact, that Cecilia had come to play the part, for him, of the “fatal woman”—using those two words in the full sense of baleful predestination which they ought to have and normally do not have. I found it difficult to believe because, apart from her noteworthy sexual capabilities—which in any case she had in common with a great many other girls of her age—Cecilia seemed to me insignificant in the highest degree and therefore incapable of arousing a passion as destructive as Balestrieri’s. The clue to this character of hers, so devoid of interest and of pretexts for taking interest in it, was provided, as I have already hinted, by her colorless, summary manner of expressing herself. I have often reflected upon the spiritual quality of which this manner was evidence, and I have come to the conclusion that it revealed a great simplicity. Not, however, the simplicity of common sense, which has always something open-hearted about it; but rather the troubled, enigmatic, incompetent simplicity of that kind of psychological amputation of which reticence, even if unconscious and involuntary, is the result. Cecilia continually gave the impression not so much of lying as of being incapable of telling the truth; and this not because she was untruthful but because telling the truth would have implied having a relationship with something, and she did not appear to have any relationship with anything. When she really told a lie (and it will be seen that she was perfectly capable of doing so), one almost had the impression that she was saying something true, even in a negative way, simply because of the grain of participation, that is, of truth, which any lie contains within itself.

  How, then, had Balestrieri managed to fall so desperately in love with her? Or rather, what had occurred between them to turn Cecilia’s very insignificant character—precisely because of its insignificance, perhaps—into a cause of passion? I knew it was never possible to make judgments about other people’s love affairs, but after all I had taken Balestrieri’s place in Cecilia’s life; I myself had taken the drug of which Balestrieri spoke in reference to Cecilia, and I could not help wondering continually, with a feeling of lingering mistrust, as with a danger foretold but belated in appearance, why the drug itself should not be having any effect upon me.

  So I questioned Cecilia at length, and gropingly, without myself knowing exactly what it was that I wished to learn from her. This is an example of one of these conversations.

  “Tell me, did Balestrieri never say why he loved you?”

  “Ugh, the usual question. Always Balestrieri...”

  “I’m sorry, but I simply must know...”

  “What?”

  “I don’t know what. Something to do with Balestrieri and you. Tell me: did he never say why he loved you?”

  “No, he loved me and that was that.”

  “I haven’t explained myself rightly. Love has no reason, it’s true, one loves and that’s that; but the quality of love, that has a reason. One loves without reason; but if one loves with sadness or with joy, with calm or with anxiety, with jealousy or with confidence, there’s always some reason behind it. As for Balestrieri, he loved you with—how shall I describe it?—with a kind of mania. You yourself have shown me that. For him you were a vice, a drug, something he couldn’t do without—those are his own words. But why this mania?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “You’re not a woman who could inspire a passion of that kind, at least so it seems to me.”

  “So it seems to me too.” This was said without a shadow of scorn or irony, but with humility and sincerity.

  “If I may say exactly what I think, now that I know you better, I simply cannot understand Balestrieri and his passion. If not precisely disappointed, I am surprised. After what you told me of your relations with Balestrieri, I imagined you to be a terrible woman, of the type that can ruin a man. Instead of that, you seem to me a very normal girl. I’m sure you would make an extremely good wife.”

  “D’you think so?”

  “Yes, you give that impression.”

  “I think so too, on the whole.”

  “Then how d’you account for the passion, or rather the kind of passion, that Balestrieri had for you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Try and think for a moment.”
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  “Really I don’t know. Obviously he was made like that.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “That he couldn’t love except in that way.”

  “That isn’t true. For years I saw Balestrieri continually changing women. What happened, happened only with you.”

  There was a long silence, and then, in a tone of sincerity and good will, she said: “Ask me a precise question, and I’ll answer you.”

  “What do you mean by a precise question?”

  “A question about a physical thing, a material thing. You always ask me questions about feelings, about what people think or don’t think, and I don’t know what to answer.”

  “A material thing? Well then, tell me: in your opinion, did Balestrieri know that his relations with you were injuring his health?”

  “Yes, he did know.”

  “What did he say?”

  “He said: ‘Some day or other this is going to kill me.’ Then I told him that he ought to be careful, but he answered that it didn’t matter.”

  “That it didn’t matter?”

  “Yes.” Then, with an air of vagueness and as if she were remembering with an effort, she went on: “In fact, now I come to think of it, I remember one day when we were making love he said to me: ‘Go on, go on, go on, I want you to go on without taking any notice of me, even if I protest, even if I feel sick, I want you to make me die, yes, really to make me die.’”

  “And what about you?”

  “I didn’t pay much attention to his words at the time. He used to say so many things. But you’ve made me think of them.”

  “So you think he loved you because you made him die, I mean because for him you were a means he made use of to kill himself?”

  “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.”

  And so I was continually getting nearer to the truth, or anyhow thinking that I was getting nearer. Nevertheless I always remained dissatisfied. The idea that Cecilia was an ordinary girl like so many others and that Balestrieri had seen something in her that did not exist and had died as result of it, this idea, as a summing-up of the matter, was rather tempting; apart from anything else, it explained why I myself, unlike Balestrieri, had not managed to feel anything for Cecilia beyond a simple physical attraction. And yet, I don’t know why, this explanation failed to satisfy me. It seemed that by explaining everything it explained nothing, and anyhow it left unsolved the problem of Cecilia, that is, the problem of the contrast between her actual simplicity and lack of interest and the passion she had been able to inspire.

  By this time, however, I realized that I was beginning to be bored with Cecilia, to find myself once more in the state of isolation and detachment in which I had been just before I met her. To say that I was bored with Cecilia may perhaps suggest the idea that she gave me no enjoyment, that is, that she herself was boring. But as I have said, mine was not a case of boredom in the sense normally given to that word. In reality it was not that Cecilia was boring, it was I who was bored, even though I knew in my heart that I might very well not be bored if, by some miracle, I could succeed in making my relationship with her more real. On the contrary, however, I felt it growing weaker and emptier every day.

  I became conscious of this change in our relationship chiefly because of the difference in my way of feeling on the subject of physical love—which was, after all, the only possible kind of love between Cecilia and me. At the beginning it had been a very natural thing, inasmuch as I had felt that, in it, nature overcame herself and became human and even more than human; now, on the other hand, it struck me mainly by its lack of naturalness, a sort of act against nature, and therefore artificial and absurd. Walking, sitting, lying down, going up or down, all the actions of the body now seemed to me to have a necessity of their own and therefore a naturalness; but copulation, on the contrary, seemed an extravagant exertion for which the human body was not made and to which it could not adapt itself without effort and fatigue. Everything, I felt, could be done easily, with grace and harmony—everything except copulation. The very conformation of the two organs, the female difficult of access, the male incapable of directing itself of its own accord toward its goal, like an arm or a leg, but requiring to be aided by the whole body, appeared to me indicative of the absurdity of the sexual act. From this sense of the absurdity of the physical relation to that of the absurdity of Cecilia herself was but a step. And so boredom, as usual, destroyed first my relationship with outside things and then the things themselves, rendering them empty and incomprehensible. But the new fact this time was that, in face of a Cecilia reduced to an object of absurdity, boredom—possibly owing to the sexual habit which I had formed and which I did not consider necessary to break off, anyhow for the moment—did not merely fill me with coldness and indifference but went beyond these feelings, or rather this lack of feeling, and was transformed into cruelty.

  Cecilia was not a glass but a person; although at the moment when I was bored with her she ceased to exist just like any other object, I nevertheless knew in my mind that she was a person. Now, just as the glass, at the moment when my boredom made it appear incomprehensible and absurd, sometimes inspired me with a violent desire to seize it and smash it and reduce it to fragments so as to have confirmation of its actual existence through destroying it, so, with more reason, when I was bored with Cecilia I was smitten with an impulse, if not to destroy her, at least to torment her and make her suffer. By tormenting her and making her suffer, in fact, it seemed to me that I might contrive to re-establish the relations that had been broken off by boredom; and little did it matter if I succeeded in this through cruelty instead of through love.

  I remember perfectly well how this cruelty showed itself for the first time. One afternoon Cecilia, after she had undressed, was coming over to the divan where I was awaiting her, lying down and also undressed, my eyes turned toward her. She was walking on tiptoe with her chest thrown forward and her shoulders and hips held slightly back, and on her face was the expectant, troubled, solemn expression of one who prepares to perform a familiar act which has been performed many times before and is yet, perhaps for that very reason, always new. I watched her as she came toward me and reflected that not merely did I not desire her (though I also knew that, if only in an automatic way, I should attain a sufficient degree of excitement to have intercourse with her) but that I could not even manage to look upon her as a thing that was in any kind of contact with me. While I was thinking of these things and she had come up to the divan and placed one knee upon it so as to lie down beside me, I suddenly noticed that the curtains were only half drawn across the big window. The white light of the sultry day worried me; besides, there were windows on the other side of the courtyard from which people could look into the studio if they wanted to. So I said, in a casual way: “Look, do you mind drawing the curtains?”

  “Oh, the curtains,” she said; and as usual she obediently turned away from me and, still walking on tiptoe, went to the window. Then, as I watched her going across the studio, with her strange, significantly shaped figure, half adolescent and half grown woman, I was suddenly seized, for the first time since I had met her, with an impulse of cruelty. It was an impulse which took me back in time to the years of my childhood, to the only occasion in my life when I had been consciously cruel. At that time I owned a large tabby cat I was very fond of but with whom, quite often, I grew bored, especially when I had gone through the few games and tests of intelligence of which the creature was capable. Boredom gave me a feeling of cruelty which led in turn to the following game. I put on a plate a small quantity of raw fish I knew the cat liked and put the plate in a corner of the room. Then I went and fetched the cat and, after allowing it to smell the fish, carried it to the opposite corner and let it go. The cat rushed to the plate, expressing its delight and greed with its whole body, from the tip of its tail to the tip of its nose; but I was ready, the moment it reached the middle of the room, to seize it like lightning by its neck and carry it b
ack to its point of departure. I repeated this game over and over again, and each time the cat became slightly more aware that it was the victim of a mysterious misfortune and in consequence changed its behavior. In its first bounds it had been violent, greedy, sure of itself; then it became more wary, as though it hoped, by pressing its body against the floor and moving its paws with caution, that it might escape my vigilance and perhaps make itself invisible; in the end, all the poor cat did was to make a slight, tentative forward movement in the direction of the plate, an experiment, at the same time both cunning and melancholy, to assure itself without too much effort that I still persisted in my cruel intention. Then suddenly, everything changed: the cat spoke. What I mean is that, turning back its head and looking into my eyes, it gave vent to a long and very expressive mewing, at the same time both touching and reasonable, that seemed to say: “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this to me?” This mewing, so explicit and so eloquent, made me instantly ashamed. I seem to remember that I even blushed. I took the cat in my arms, carried him over to the plate myself, and left him to eat his fish in peace.

  And now, when I saw Cecilia walking away docilely on tiptoe toward the window, it occurred to me to play the same cruel game with her as I had played with the cat. In her case too, it was to satisfy her appetite that she had come over to the divan; and she too, like the cat, had at that moment expressed her appetite—her perfectly natural and legitimate appetite—with her whole body, from her head to her feet. Now I was going to play with her as I had played with the cat; but this time I should be completely conscious of the true motive of the game, which was to re-establish through cruelty my relationship with external things that had been broken off by boredom.

 
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